Eight Games, Pt. 6: Bruised Orange

Eight Games is a series on modern Tennessee basketball that plots the history of the program from 1997-98 to present (the last 24 seasons). In this series, there are eight chapters, each referring to a specific time period in Tennessee basketball told through the lens of one game in that period. This series runs every Monday and Thursday in the month of October 2021. You can follow all editions as they’re listed here.

Cuonzo Martin didn’t really leave Tennessee in the middle of the night like the classic tales go. The news broke while I was in a 12:40 PM English class on a Tuesday; it was something you texted your friends about the rest of the day, and by the time Martin did leave, it was sort of an understandable surprise. A long-term Martin and Tennessee marriage seemed destined to fail. Athletic director Dave Hart clearly wasn’t that interested in spending over his hypothetical budget to keep Martin, and while fans had managed to get behind Martin in March, they had wanted him fired in January and February.

All of this goes to say three things, none of which deserve their own paragraph:

  1. Tennessee was deemed a toxic position to take by national media members;
  2. As such, a coaching search was likely behind the 8-ball before it even started;
  3. I remember driving to my part-time job at a local Catholic school and hearing a caller on local sports radio station 99.1 FM asking if Tennessee could hire Billy Donovan from Florida.

In only its fifth day of the search, Tennessee had seemed to zero in on a candidate they really liked: Louisiana Tech head coach Mike White. At the time, White’s resume was pretty impressive. After an extensive run as an assistant at Mississippi, White took the head coaching job at Louisiana Tech prior to the 2011-12 season. All he did was give a moribund program their longest run of success since Karl Malone was on campus. White’s teams went 18-16, 27-7, then 29-8; all he was missing was an NCAA Tournament bid.

For about 12 hours, Mike White was going to be Tennessee’s next head coach. Then Hart, again, got in the way. He and White seemed to have a disagreement on Tennessee basketball’s budget for White’s assistants. White wanted more money; Hart wouldn’t budge. (White has also said he wasn’t completely convinced he wanted to leave Louisiana Tech yet, to be fair to Hart.) White backed out of the job. Tennessee’s only super-serious candidate to that point was out.

Next up on the list was everyone’s agreed-upon “break in case of emergency” pick: Southern Mississippi head coach Donnie Tyndall. Tyndall also had his own impressive Conference USA run while holding a pair of NCAA Tournament runs from his time at Morehead State, including a fairly infamous win over Louisville. Tyndall had only been with USM for two years, but those two years were quite special: records of 27-10 and 29-7. Tyndall had a reputation for quick, deep turnarounds at programs who were on the cusp of success but couldn’t get over the hump. In theory, you could see where Tennessee was coming from.

Tyndall, with his ultra-thick Michigan accent (memories of “Vals” still ring in my ears), was hired on April 22, 2014. Most everyone was willing to give him a Year Zero: a year where no one cares all that much about wins and losses as long as you fight hard and show progress. Tennessee returned just 27.4% of its minutes from the previous season, one of the lowest rates in all of basketball. Making the NCAA Tournament wasn’t likely; a good season would probably be an NIT bid. The clock had been reset.

Unfortunately for Tyndall, he was resetting his own clock in a different way all during this time. Tennessee seemed to have no idea of this until it was far too late.

NEXT PAGE: Lost dogs and mixed blessings

Eight Games, Pt. 5: Sweet Virginia

After the 2009-10 season, it seemed like Tennessee’s future as a basketball program had never been brighter. They were coming off the longest postseason run in school history; the two winningest seasons in school history took place over two of the previous three seasons. Tennessee had a chance to establish themselves as something close to one of the 15 best programs in college basketball, possibly even top ten. This was a status the program hadn’t really reached consistently since Bernard King and Ernie Grunfeld were on campus. So, yeah, Tennessee basketball was in its best place in 30+ years.

In fall 2008, Bruce Pearl hosted a small gathering at his Knoxville home. At that home were several key figures, including an Ohio State point guard that would grow to be perhaps the most pivotal figure in modern Tennessee basketball. He never played a minute in orange.

Aaron Craft was a four-star point guard from Ohio who, for a brief time, had committed to come to Tennessee. During the fall of 2008, he attended this small gathering at Pearl’s home. He was a high school junior who wanted to spend time with his likely future coach. Craft would later decommit to attend the more local Ohio State (a program at a similar once-every-30-years peak), which was fine. However, there was one huge problem with Craft’s attendance at this party: high school juniors were not allowed to attend off-campus events with college coaches.

Pearl knew this. The staff knew this. You can report this as some sort of relatively minor violation and get away with a slap on the wrist or whatever the NCAA is feeling at the moment. A truth-teller can self-report this violation, maybe have probation at worst, and move on with their life.

For reasons known only to Pearl and his staff, the staff denied the party ever happened. They denied that Craft was in attendance. There was one major problem with this white lie: the NCAA was given a photo of Craft and Pearl, standing with each other, inside Pearl’s home. The identity of the photographer, along with who sent the NCAA this photo, is still unknown. Many Tennessee fans believe that this was a plot by Ohio State themselves to kill a newfound recruiting rival; some believe Craft or Craft’s father took the photo themselves as blackmail. The truth of all of this will never be known.

What it ultimately led to was this: a 2010-11 season where a cloud began to hang over Pearl and Pearl’s assistants from night one. Every game Tennessee played this season would be plagued with a timeline of ‘violations’ that ESPN would run through every game, discussing ad nauseum. The season began on November 12th, 2010; seven days later, Pearl was notified that he would be suspended for exactly half of the SEC conference schedule because of his lie to the NCAA. Something funny happened, though.

Under the most scrutiny a Tennessee basketball team has faced in my lifetime, and probably yours as well, a team replacing almost half of its scoring from 2009-10 and pushing a likely one-and-done freshman to the forefront in Tobias Harris just…owned November. Like, to an extent no one saw coming. Tennessee entered the preseason NIT as expected runner-ups and proceeded to dominate #7 Villanova in the second half of a game they won 78-68. Then they went on the road two weeks later to #3 Pittsburgh (at a “neutral” site in Pennsylvania) and won that game, too.

Along the way, there were missteps – Tennessee had to tighten games defensively to escape upset bids by Belmont (85-76), Missouri State (60-56), and a VCU team few expected much from (77-72), but winners win games. They rose from #23 in the preseason AP poll to #7 on December 13. Somehow, despite Pearl’s suspension, despite everything bad building from this recruiting incident, it seemed like the program was not only going to survive but thrive in this sloppiness. Maybe they really were a top ten program.

Three days after that Pittsburgh game, Tennessee hosted Oakland University at home. Oakland was a good team that went on to be a 13 seed in that year’s NCAA Tournament, but when you’re #7 in the country, you expect to beat Oakland at home. And it went that way for one half, as Tennessee put up 50 and led by double digits. Then they turned the car off.

Oakland came back, owned the final 15 minutes in particular, and won, 89-82. This remains Tennessee’s only loss as an AP Top 10 team to an unranked non-SEC opponent. Still, college basketball is weird. This was the same team that just beat two top 10 teams in two weeks. A neutral-site game against Charlotte should’ve been a nice course correction. It turned into one of the most excruciating games Tennessee has played since I began watching, peaking with a late-game broken coverage that allowed Charlotte – CHARLOTTE – to steal a 49-48 win.

In three days, Tennessee went from #7 in the AP Poll with wins over teams ranked #7 and #3 to a team that lost to Oakland University and Charlotte. Just like that, the balloon didn’t just leak, it popped. Tennessee lost at home to USC four days later. They needed a last-second layup to escape a fourth straight loss against Belmont, 66-65. They slept-walked through a horrid December 29th game against Tennessee-Martin and barely won by six. Then, perhaps most embarrassingly, Tennessee hosted a mid-day nationally televised game against the College of Charleston on New Year’s Eve and got utterly demolished.

The Craft news was the first sign of a problem, but in 17 days of real time, Tennessee went from a team some were seriously looking at as a Final Four contender to a team with losses to Oakland, Charlotte, and College of Charleston. And it would somehow only get worse. A random 104-84 win over Memphis was a brief respite, but SEC play started (with “interim” head coach Tony Jones) with an awful road loss to Arkansas. Then it was an overtime home loss to an unranked Florida squad. Then Tennessee had to come back from 17 down at home (on College GameDay, for reasons still unknown) to escape Vanderbilt.

By the time Pearl was able to return permanently (excluding a January road loss to UConn that Pearl was eligible to coach), Tennessee was 15-8 and 5-3 in the SEC. Pearl’s first two games back were road losses to Kentucky (by 12) and Florida (by 1). The train simply never got back on the tracks. Thompson-Boling Arena, a place that had become fearsome for SEC opponents, gave Tennessee a 6-8 home record after November. Tennessee managed to make the NCAA Tournament as a 9 seed. On the day of the game, multiple players on the team have reported watching athletic director Mike Hamilton give an interview to ESPN in which he said he wasn’t sure if Pearl would be back for the 2011-12 season. No wonder the team was steamrolled shortly after.

Pearl would be fired after the season ended, then would receive a three-year show-cause from the NCAA banning him from coaching in college. Tennessee had to embark on a coaching search yet again. Similar to Pearl’s own search, it took several misdirections and ended up in a place almost no one had expected when the search began.

NEXT PAGE: You can’t always get what you want

Eight Games, Pt. 4: Pearl of the Quarter

Eight Games is a series on modern Tennessee basketball that plots the history of the program from 1997-98 to present (the last 24 seasons). In this series, there are eight chapters, each referring to a specific time period in Tennessee basketball told through the lens of one game in that period. This series runs every Monday and Thursday in the month of October 2021. You can follow all editions as they’re listed here.

On the heels of the inarguable Greatest Season in Tennessee Basketball History, Bruce Pearl had to re-tool on the fly. Gone were Chris Lofton and JaJuan Smith; in came four Top 100 recruits to give Tennessee a total of six on the roster, along with JUCO newbie Bobby Maze and a few year-older guys in Tyler Smith, Wayne Chism, and J.P. Prince. (Also Brian Williams. Never forget Brian Williams.) Those Top 100 recruits, in order of highest-to-lowest ranking, were:

  • Scotty Hopson (#11 in 2008 class), a 6’7″ guard expected to be a phenomenal shooter who could play the 2, 3, and 4;
  • Emmanuel Negedu (#43 in 2008 class), a 6’7″ forward who came to Knoxville after initially committing to Arizona and was scouted as being dominant at the rim;
  • Renaldo Woolridge (#70 in 2008 class), the 6’9″ son of 12-year NBA player Orlando Woolridge who had a burgeoning rap career on the side;
  • Cameron Tatum (#96 in 2006 class), a 6’7″ player who took a prep school year and redshirted the 2007-08 season who was expected to be an excellent shooter.

Combining these new guys with the returners, along with Tennessee’s upward momentum as a program, convinced the media that Tennessee was unlikely to take much of a step back at all. The Vols began the 2008-09 season ranked #14 nationally, obliterated their first five opponents (including a 90-78 win over #21 Georgetown), and by the time mid-December rolled around, the only blemish on their record was a defensible 83-74 loss to #9 Gonzaga where the Bulldogs hit 55% of their threes to Tennessee’s 29.2%. That kind of stuff happens because college basketball is a weird, variance-driven sport.

On December 13, 2008, Tennessee traveled to Philadelphia to take on Temple for just the second time in 35 years. They probably should’ve stayed home.

Three days later, Tennessee would hold a Marquette team featuring Wesley Matthews and Jimmy Butler to a 45.8% eFG% in a 12-point victory. Back to normal! Then they had to survive a Belmont upset push for a full 40 minutes, escaping with a 79-77 win. It was kind of like this for…well, most of the season. Every good thing would almost immediately be followed by pain; every source of joy stamped out by a newer, larger source of frustration. Tennessee would lose on the road to an unranked Kansas squad, at home to Gonzaga in overtime, and wouldn’t be ranked again after January 12th, 2009.

A steadying win on the road versus a bad Georgia team was immediately followed by the Jodie Meeks Game, where Meeks dropped 54 points on Tennessee in Thompson-Boling Arena as one of the worst Kentucky teams in 30 years defeated Tennessee by 18 points.

A rare double-digit road win at Memorial Gym versus Vandy was followed by an excruciating two-point home loss to Memphis and another home loss to an LSU team that was their toughest competition in the worst SEC in 25 years. A surprising demolition of Florida at TBA (which would be followed later in the season by a road win/sweep of the Gators) gave Tennessee fans hope before a two-point win over a 2-14 Arkansas team and a horrid road loss to an Auburn team that posted a 50% OREB% yet again derailed hopes. As Tennessee turned the page into March, what looked like a seriously promising season as recently as New Year’s Day had turned into the first true disappointment of the Bruce Pearl era: 17-10, 8-5 in the SEC. Tennessee was still pretty likely to get into the NCAA Tournament, but they needed wins sorely.

Out of seemingly nowhere, these Volunteers went on a run. Tennessee went 3-1 to close the year, the only blemish being (of course) a 70-67 home loss with a buzzer-beater against Alabama on Senior Day.

And for once, the SEC Tournament was not a source of utter humiliation. Tennessee would demolish that same Alabama team by 24 on Friday. They’d outlast Auburn on Saturday. The bracket broke wide open. The 1 and 2 seed from the West were eliminated; all that was left was a Mississippi State team that finished its regular season at 19-12, 9-7 SEC. That wasn’t a team that would make the NCAA Tournament field without a victory. Tennessee had defeated them just 18 days prior at home. They were locked into the NCAA Tournament, likely somewhere in the 7-8 seed lines with a win. It seemed easy enough. Until Tennessee just…couldn’t hit anything at all. Tennessee had one of their worst two-point shooting days the program has seen in recent memory: 12-for-42, or 28.6%. Tyler Smith, who was genuinely very reliable on twos his entire career, went 1-for-12. No one could bring it home.

Tennessee still somehow led this game late. Then Phil Turner, who entered the final 90 seconds with five points in the game, scored seven to push State to a 64-61 lead. Tennessee would get one final shot, courtesy of Smith…

Of course it didn’t go in. A genuinely frustrating season doesn’t end that way. Neither did it in the NCAA Tournament, where 9-seed Tennessee had to battle back from a halftime deficit against 8-seed Oklahoma State only to give up a three-point play late to lose, 77-75. (Footnote: This is a game I drew the line on watching again. There is a Real Story that goes with this game for me personally which requires substantial explanation.)

For the first time in Pearl’s four-year tenure, fans had reason to doubt which direction the program was going in. This season shouldn’t have been what it ended up becoming. The recovery would have to begin as soon as Pearl could make it happen.

NEXT PAGE: Show biz kids

Eight Games, Pt. 3: Born to Run

In life, the thing you often want most is the thing that probably isn’t best for you. All sorts of factors can be leaned into here. This thing could be dangerous for you. Maybe it was good for you ten years ago; it may not be so good for you now. Perhaps the timing just isn’t right. Maybe this thing is quite expensive, and you’re on a bit of a budget crunch. It happens. Maybe you start rethinking why you wanted this in the first place and realize it wasn’t right for you.

For a large chunk of the month of March after Buzz Peterson was canned, Tennessee fans seemed obsessed with the idea of hiring Bob Knight, then at Texas Tech. (I imagine his Indiana resume requires no explanation.) At the time, Knight was 64 years old – again, the essential opposite of the young Buzz – and was in the midst of quite the successful second act. His Red Raiders had gone 23-9, 22-13, 23-11, then 22-11 with a newly-furnished Sweet Sixteen bid in March 2005. It was the school’s second-ever Sweet Sixteen run in the 64/68-team era. Obviously, what he was doing was quite remarkable.

As Tennessee’s search ran over the course of two weeks, there were three questions Tennessee was required to answer:

  1. Is this coach actually interested in coming to Tennessee?
  2. Can Tennessee afford this coach’s salary?
  3. Will this coach be available anytime soon?

Knight (behind Pat Summitt, of course) was first and foremost on the average Tennessee fan’s mind. As of March 24 – the morning of Texas Tech’s Sweet Sixteen game against 7-seed West Virginia – Knight was technically available. He’d reportedly made vague overtures that if Tennessee called, he’d listen. And, hey, Knight could be ‘available’ as soon as the next day, were Texas Tech (a 6 seed) to lose as a very slight favorite.

Quietly, Knight’s salary didn’t seem to be all that absurd to buy out. At the time, Knight was reportedly making about $400,000 a year at Texas Tech, which is before all sorts of bonuses (and his relentless appearances in commercials) probably got him north of $500K/year. Knight wasn’t hurting for money at this point of his career; this was more about loving the game than anything else. He even would lose that day to West Virginia, bringing Texas Tech’s 2004-05 season to a close right as Tennessee’s search seemed to heat up. But it never materialized, and reporting now suggests Knight was never that serious of a candidate beyond using Tennessee for a quick raise.

The search narrowed itself to four candidates. Three of them were already available if offered. Bobby Lutz (Charlotte, 47 years old) seemed to be the early leader; Chris Low reported that he both had a phone and in-person interview with athletic director Mike Hamilton. Lutz’s credentials were pretty good at the time. Through seven seasons at Charlotte, Lutz was 135-83 with five NCAA Tournament appearances (including a win in Jerry Green’s final game at Tennessee) and had consistently made Charlotte a top-three team in a conference that had four NCAA Tournament teams with six the previous season. (He was also from Hickory, North Carolina, a town we will obviously never hear about in this series again.)

Lutz fell out late in the running, as did UAB’s Mike Anderson (45 years old), who was 65-34 in three seasons with UAB and had already taken the Blazers to a Sweet Sixteen the previous season. Anderson consistently hung around as a potential candidate but never seemed to materialize in the upper crust.

The third, and briefly most likely option, was Dana Altman of Creighton. We know a lot more about Altman now, but at this time, he was a 46-year-old who had coached in the Great Plains for all but one year of his coaching career. He’d been at Creighton for 12 seasons, completely changing the program’s trajectory and overseeing six NCAA Tournament bids in the seven seasons leading into this coaching search. Creighton had won at least 20 games seven years in a row, which seemed like an obvious grand-slam hire to anyone following closely.

Altman, for reasons I can’t explain beyond the shoulder shrug ASCII guy, never caught on with Tennessee fans. You see in that poll above that he barely outranked Bobby Lutz, a guy who is named Bobby Lutz. His resume was fabulous, and he was widely considered to be in the top two for the Tennessee job, though he never seemed to express his interest publicly.

Throughout a two-week period of March, Mike Hamilton interviewed several candidates, gauged the interest of many more, and seemed to simply…wait it out. It was a bit different pre-Twitter, but even then, two weeks from fired coach to hired coach feels like a lifetime as a fan. It’s like aging in cat/dog years; it simply seems much, much longer than it is. Hamilton was waiting out one final candidate who had overseen his own surprising run to the Sweet Sixteen. That candidate had the backing of one very important historical figure in Tennessee’s tapestry.

NEXT PAGE: Dancing in the dark

Eight Games, Pt. 2: Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve?)

Eight Games is a series on modern Tennessee basketball that plots the history of the program from 1997-98 to present (the last 24 seasons). In this series, there are eight chapters, each referring to a specific time period in Tennessee basketball told through the lens of one game in that period. This series runs every Monday and Thursday in the month of October 2021. You can follow all editions as they’re listed here.

After Jerry Green was…uh, “retiring,” Tennessee embarked on a national search to find a coach the program could hold onto for several years. The typical cliche you hear when a coaching search happens is generally the same: the new coach needs to be the opposite of the previous one. If that didn’t work, let’s try this. (We’re going to briefly ignore Green’s 71% win rate and overall general success at Tennessee in a short timespan.)

The last coach was old? Let’s go young. The last coach was a jerk? Let’s try a nice(r) guy. The last coach couldn’t win when it counted? Go find a guy that wins in March. As a hire, Buzz Peterson reasonably met all three basic points: Peterson was 38 when Tennessee hired him. Most who know Buzz seem to describe him as a generally nice person, which was realistically a refreshing thing to hear after Jerry Green had asked you to meet him in the KMart parking lot. Lastly, Peterson had just five years of head coaching experience, but he took Appalachian State to the 2000 NCAA Tournament and, in his one year at Tulsa, won the NIT championship. Lest you doubt all of this, it’s in the newspaper, so it seemed true enough.

The Tennessean, April 3, 2001 The Tennessean, April 5, 2001

All of that seemed like a fine enough resume to Tennessee, who hired Peterson after a fairly short search that included a run at…well, you let me know how you feel about this list.

All of the coaches on that list would have been fascinating experiments for various reasons. Of course, knowing what we know in 2021, at least three of those coaches (and probably a fourth, Gregg Marshall, pre-self-inflicted controversy) would be first-ballot entrants in a College Basketball Coaching Hall of Fame. Tennessee didn’t know that at the time, and to be fair, neither did anyone else. Young coaches are exciting, obviously, but every single one represents a roll of the dice without a ton of information about how great or not-great each one is. We have educated guesses, yes, but even those educated guesses don’t always work out. (Check out Nebraska football for a fretful version of this exact experiment.)

That’s a long way of saying “yeah, I get it.” Left out of the bio is that Peterson’s dad was a Tennessee graduate and Peterson went to several games growing up. Passion for the team and for the fans, something that Jerry Green never quite nailed down, would not be an issue for Buzz. Along with that, it wasn’t as if Tennessee was the only school pursuing Peterson. They had to battle off South Carolina for his services. Along with that, the Tennessean reported that only one candidate from that above list was a true finalist: Marshall at Winthrop. (Jeff Lebo, then at Tennessee Tech, was the other.)

So, sure, you hired a guy with a light resume, but he loves Tennessee and I guess that counts for something.

NEXT PAGE: What do I get?

The Tennessean, February 20, 2001

Eight Games, Pt. 1: Another Green World

Eight Games is a series on modern Tennessee basketball that plots the history of the program from 1997-98 to present (the last 24 seasons). In this series, there are eight chapters, each referring to a specific time period in Tennessee basketball told through the lens of one game in that period. This series runs every Monday and Thursday in the month of October 2021. You can follow all editions as they’re listed here.

A man rises from his seat. It is late; the air is thick and noise around him is heavy. The noise, depending on the night or even the time of the night, can be quantified as ‘good’, ‘bad’, or ‘mixed.’ This man possesses an unusually special ability to make those around him feel all three noises at once. He is a master of emotional confusion; a level above at his highly-specific craft.

The audience around him may not know it at the time, but in their presence, they’ve reached the inflection point of one man’s work. It’s the point at which there is no turning back; a point where people firmly fall on one side or the other with the man in question. These points are unpredictable, and by the time they arrive, they’ve blown past you in what feels like no time at all.

In the process of rising from his seat to issue a call to those mere feet away from him, he clenches his fists, stands as straight as he can, and strikes a pose that remarkably simulates holding in the poop of a lifetime.

This man is Jerry Green, either the most-hated or most-underloved coach in modern Tennessee basketball history.

NEXT PAGE: Taking tiger mountain (by strategy)